Tuesday, April 17, 2007


By Amy

My husband thinks I have a crush on Atul Gawande.

True, Dr. Gawande is breathlessly handsome. He’s a surgeon too, and my husband knows how I’ve always dreamed of being a trauma surgeon. A MacArthur Fellow, an assistant professor at Harvard University, husband to a beautiful woman. He is all of these things and more; Atul Gawande is one of the most perfect writers I’ve ever encountered.

I met him last October at PEN New England’s reception for Best American Short Stories 2006. Lynne and I went together, stood alone at first like groupies at a rock concert, pointing out the literati: Tom Perrotta, Ann Patchett, Michael Lowenthal, Scott Heim, Paul Yoon, Edith Pearlman, Mameve Medwed, and there, over by the bar, Atul Gawande. How my hands shook. I’d devoured his first book “Complications” three times over, his essays in the New Yorker and the New England Journal of Medicine, his first attempts at writing in Salon. I’d even sent him a charming note after reading his book and he wrote back, telling me about his work-in-progress, as if a surgeon, New Yorker staff writer, father of three didn’t have enough to do. Now he was standing across the room, a (cashmere?) scarf thrown carelessly around his shoulders. I spoke easily with the rest of the writers, but waited until Dr. Gawande was leaving before I had the nerve to gush to him.

Today I bought his second book, “Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance.” I didn’t expect to like it as much as “Complications,” but by page 3, I was in tears.

That’s how it is sometimes, isn’t it? There are writers who possess a certain voice on the page that entices and seduces, leaves us feeling as though we’ve shared an intimate moment. With Atul Gawande, his writing appears so effortless, casual and off-hand, yet he leaves his readers feeling as though he’s reached inside our bodies and wrung us through. I feel the same way when I read Gail Konop Baker’s columns on Literary Mama. There’s a frenetic energy there that bursts forth. My God, I actually burned my children’s dinner the other night rather than stop reading. She had me! Ever hear one of Maureen Corrigan’s book reviews on Fresh Air? Not only is it her actual voice that ensnares her listeners, it’s her writing. So few reviewers are as adept with the written word as she; whenever I hear her introduction, all activity around me must stop: the dishwasher, the clacking of the keyboard, even the children are silenced. She’s that good.

So how to be that good. Attention to craft, of course, careful reading across all genres, but mostly with care, I think. Each of these writers cares deeply, intently about their subject. Each word is carefully chosen, each sentence constructed, each and every paragraph ever so carefully designed with breaks in mind. I want to be that kind of writer.

No, it’s not that I’ve a crush on Atul Gawande, though it’s easy to understand my husband’s concern. It’s more that I want to be Atul Gawande.


Therese said...

Wow Amy! So many interesting new bits for me to savour this morning!

I'm not familiar with Mr. Gawande, nor Literary Mama, so thank you for bringing both to my attention.

I'd like to believe that my writing is nearing that high-quality standard you also strive for...though I have my days of "itotallysuckitis." The cure? Keep writing. :)

I've tried to explain to undergrad writing students the "how" of such compelling work as you've highlighted here, but oh, how difficult it is to deconstruct, to quantify.

Often I've said, "you know it when you see it," and "you know it when you do it." I remember the first time I pushed myself to emulate such work and surprised myself--and my grad professor of the time--by succeeding.

Caring deeply about both subject and craft is, IMO, the "secret" of how to "be that good." My dream is to have readers one day writing such eloquent posts as this about things I've written!

Anonymous said...

Amy, thank you so much for your kind words about my writing. I am overwhelmed with gratitude... Your posts always pull me in because your your voice is always clear and concise and confident. I love that! Also, thanks for introducing me to Atul Gawande. I've never heard of him and look forward to reading him.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Therese, just by reading your blog, I'm certain I -- and others -- will someday use your books as examples of voice, of eloquent writing. No doubt.

Anon, I wish I knew who you are. And I hope everyone hits the links to read examples of the writers
I cited.


Anonymous said...

It's me, Gail. I didn't mean to leave my comment anonymously. Thank you again!

kristen spina said...

I just want to say "wonderful post." I've also been reading Atul Gawande in The New Yorker and can imagine how thrilling it must have been to meet him. I love this blog. It's inspirational and thought-provoking and I need to say thanks because as effortless as you make it seem, I know you must work long and hard to find the right balance of voice and thought.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Hi, Kristen, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. People like you make it all worthwhile.


Larramie said...

Anonymous Gail commented: "...your voice is always clear and concise and confident. I love that!"

I feel the same, Amy, but would add another "c" adjective -- caring. Yes, you already have "it" as your words are truly heartfelt, no matter what the subject.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Larramie, not only are your daisies always a treasured sight here (my personal talisman), but your kind words too. Thanks, *sniff*


Therese said...

Amy, I thank you--and want to echo Larramie's observation. Can't wait to read some of your fiction. :)

Holly Kennedy said...

What a wonderful post!
You make me want to run out and buy his work, although I have to admit I've not heard of Atul Gawande before now *red faced*

< It's not that you got a crush on him but that you want to BE him >
Very nice....

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Thanks, Holly, and no red faces here. I'm constantly hearing about writers everyone else seems to know. It's exciting to discover someone new. And how's book tour going for The Penny Tree? Can't wait to read my copy.


Anonymous said...

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Longevity Science: The Way We Age

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